Athens: one year on, earthquake effects linger

The world may have forgotten it, but for many people in the Greek capital, Athens, a 10-second earthquake that struck last September continues to have a big impact on their lives. More than 6,000 families still live in camps in prefabricated houses, mostly donated by the local authorities. They have no money to rebuild their previous house or construct a new one.
In the suburb of Menidi, one of the hardest hit areas, Thomas Kougioumtzidis lives with his wife and two children in Kaputa camp. He lost his house and job during the earthquake and is now uncertain about the future. "My daughters cannot go to school as there isn't one in the neighbourhood," he says. Panagiota Mihalopoulou just lost her husband and is now facing a difficult period living with her three children in Kaputa camp. Before the quake, she and her husband rented a house and worked in agriculture. "But now I do not know what to do and where to go."

Immediately after the earthquake, which struck on September 7, 1999, the Greek authorities asked the Hellenic Red Cross to provide food and shelter for 57,000 people for three months. The earthquake killed 138 people and left more than 70,000 homeless. As the Hellenic Red Cross set up tent camps in 18 municipalities, the International Federation launched an appeal for nearly 2.4 million Swiss francs and provided 13,000 mattresses and 10,000 blankets.

Some 300 staff and volunteers organized the provision of three meals a day, camping material and hygiene items in and outside the camps. "We were working with at least ten catering companies so that we could guarantee this huge quantity of food," explains Fay Chronopoulou, a Red Cross worker who, together with many others worked day and night for a long time after the earthquake. The people who received meals were either living in camps in tents donated by the Red Cross, or in tents outside their houses, as they were afraid to go back into their homes for fear of aftershocks. Thomas Kougioumtzidis remembers those first months in tents very well. Although grateful for the food and the tent, he felt as though he was "living as a modern gypsy."

The volunteers who worked day and night to bring assistance to these people will never forget the image of people waiting, sometimes too proud to come forward and ask for food. "The people were desperate and you could see the pain on their faces. They lost everything and were now relying on us for their daily needs," explains Popi Pitaki, 47, a Red Cross volunteer nurse since 1986.

In Menidi, the Red Cross donated 14 prefabricated houses to families that were considered to be most needy. Eleni Amanatidou still lives in one of them with her three daughters. Her children are still psychologically traumatised by the earthquake, and are afraid of going to school in case it collapses. Eleni lost her job cleaning houses for people, and with it, the security it brought her children. She received food, blankets and a stove from the Red Cross. "I was happy with the stove, because the winter can be very cold and that was at least something we did not have to worry about."

For the 6,000 families still living in the camps, conditions are difficult. "They not only suffer from difficult weather conditions as it is very hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but most of all they suffer from stress," explains Mrs. Fani Abazoli, head of the local Red Cross health centre in the Athens suburb of Ano Liosia. "They are obliged to live very close together and therefore have no privacy at all," she adds.

Immediately after the quake, the health centre assisted 72 injured people and gave psychological support to the families of eight people who died in the earthquake. As people lost their medical records, an important task has been to review their situation and distribute most needed medicines. The health centre continues to assist some 3,000 people that live in 17 container camps in this suburb, with five Red Cross nurses visiting the camps every day to provide basic health care and education.

The work of the Hellenic Red Cross has been much appreciated by the government. "The cooperation between the Red Cross and the government has always been good, but it has now been renewed," says Olga Monachou, head of international relations at the Hellenic Red Cross. "But we could not have done it without the assistance of the International Federation and many other National Societies who helped," she adds.